The fighter still remains

Cocaine and crack once consumed Mark Allen, AB’01, but now he battles his demons in the ring.

By Jason Kelly
Photography by Dan Dry

Mark Allen, AB’01, glides around a ring at the Chicago Boxing Club, punching at nothing. He exhales in clipped bursts synchronized to put a little extra wind behind each jab, cross, and uppercut. It looks like he’s dancing to the rhythm of his own breathing. All around him aspiring fighters create a ringside percussion section—the drum roll of speed bags, the tic-tic-tic of a jump rope slapping the floor, the thud of thick gloves to the ribs—but Allen ignores it. Between the ropes, shadow boxing, he’s alone in his head.

Photo: Mark Allen

Six feet tall and a lean 173 pounds, Allen moves with practiced ease, conscious of the position of his feet, the angle of his shoulders, the torque of his hips. Each punch depends on coordinating those subtle techniques. His intense, meditative warm-up, like a musician playing scales, helps build the stamina and muscle memory to perform under pressure. About ten minutes into a two-hour workout, sweat soaks his white T-shirt.

Allen, 30, started boxing four years ago and immersed himself with relentless dedication, to the point that his coach chides him for overtraining. “I think it’s because he doesn’t like to lose. Exactly like me,” says his mother, Susan Au Allen, a former Washington immigration attorney and now president and CEO of the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t like to lose. I work hard. I work more hours than anybody else.” Then she laughs. “I’m not sure it is a virtue, because it can go overboard.” That narrow barrier between competitive and compulsive is the centerline of Mark Allen’s life. He fights to avoid swerving into the self-destructive habits that almost killed him.

Sober since June 17, 2003, he tries to keep boxing from becoming just another unrestrained urge, physically healthier but with the same emotionally numbing effect as drugs. “I can kind of live in that mode,” Allen says, “and literally be detached from the people in my life.” At least boxing is a safer addiction than the cocaine and crack that once consumed him. So despite being older and less experienced than his competition, he strives to turn pro. Through about 20 amateur fights—he remembers the exact number of losses (five) but not total bouts—Allen has shown enough potential to have a legitimate shot. It requires constant training, often twice a day, while also running an advertising start-up, On-Site Digital, out of his West Side condo.

The shadow boxing he practices in the ring became a reflex when he was learning the sport. Catching his reflection in a window compelled him to pause and polish his form. He could see how every punch he threw created an opening for a skilled opponent, and that a lapse in even the smallest detail could leave him vulnerable.

All his life Allen has been guarding against vulnerability with one obsession or another. For years it was basketball. He talked his way onto the U of C team, which did not recruit him, and spent two seasons on no-promises probation before his roster spot became secure. Even then he never played much.

While his teammates joined fraternities and went to bars and parties, Allen practiced and studied economics to the exclusion of almost everything else. He wouldn’t drink a soda, let alone a beer. His first two years at Chicago, Allen was a driver for the late-night shuttle service, ferrying tipsy students home from the bars. Socializing made him uneasy. “Ever since I was young, I always kind of felt uncomfortable in my own skin,” Allen says, “like there was an instruction manual for life, and everyone got it except me.”

That feeling has defined him for as long as he can remember. Sports provided a sweaty distraction from the sensation of “boiling underneath” a placid, reserved surface. Allen flourished at Washington International School, though he never felt he belonged among the children of diplomats and World Bank executives. “Me and my brother were kind of outliers there,” he says, but good grades and athletic success conferred a status that belied his roiling emotions.

Allen’s parents, who pushed him academically, did not show much interest in basketball. When his mother had time to attend games, she usually kept her nose in a book, indifferent to the action. Paul Allen, an immigration attorney, taught his sons about libertarian politics and economics. They often watched Wall Street Week together, and Mark remembers his father taking him and younger brother Eddie to meet Milton Friedman, AM’33, at a Cato Institute event in San Francisco. The acceptance letter from the University of Chicago meant much more to Paul, who gave Mark no choice if he wanted his tuition paid.

Allen went along with his father’s wishes because he figured he had a chance to play basketball. But the shy first-year had to cold-sell himself. He overcame his social queasiness and convinced coach Pat Cunningham to let him participate in informal workouts. Jim Waichulis, AB’01, remembers Allen making a smug first impression. “I’ll be the first to say I didn’t really like him that much. He walked around like he had an attitude about him and kept to himself,” Waichulis says. “Here comes this guy that nobody knows, who doesn’t say much, and he’s trying to take somebody’s place.” Allen endured a few flailing elbows on the court—he needed the game more than approval. “All I had was basketball throughout high school,” he says. “It meant a lot to me.”

Maybe too much. Although he mostly sat on the bench, those wary teammates began to admire his effort. “It was his work ethic that turned everybody around,” says Waichulis, now one of Allen’s closest friends. “He worked his tail off always. It becomes contagious, and you respect that.” Yet even as he developed a reputation as a selfless support player, his self-respect diminished.

Photo: Mark Allen

Home for the summer before his fourth year, Allen stewed about his minor role on the basketball team. Between that disappointment and a sense of inadequacy over not getting a promising internship, his mood took a dark turn. Feeling “borderline suicidal,” he called his HMO and opened up to the operator. A doctor in Washington diagnosed Allen with chronic depression and prescribed antidepressants, but eventually the self-medication he had discovered a few months earlier came to dominate his life.

During the spring quarter of his third year, friends had finally convinced him to come out for a few drinks. One beer turned into 12 in a cozy blur that felt comfortable, the unfamiliar sensation coursing through him on waves of Bud Light. “It was crazy,” Allen says. “I was talking to people I had never talked to before, apparently really knowledgeable about everything.” After that night he would go to extremes to maintain that feeling and to seek experiences he had denied himself. “I was always trying to catch up,” Allen says. “All these people had been doing this stuff for, at that point, years. Here I am trying to get with it, literally, from talking to girls to just being out.”

Within months he started using cocaine to fuel his drinking binges. He first experimented at a party with friends from a martial-arts gym he had joined. After a cocaine-mushroom-absinthe spree Allen woke up inside a fireplace, naked and bleeding under a blanket. More embarrassed than hungover, he had “one of the worst sinking feelings in my stomach” about what might have happened. Getting high became his way to defeat those feelings.

In his final quarter at Chicago—with basketball finished and his front-loaded academic career a couple courses from completion—he started smoking crack. A year earlier Allen barely knew the frat houses and bars his friends frequented. Now he went to Cabrini-Green and the Henry Horner Homes, alone, to buy drugs. What began as a source of social courage isolated him even more. He drifted further from his friends and family, who knew almost nothing about his drug use.

After graduating in 2001, he held down jobs in bars and restaurants, including about a year at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, “managing the booze,” Allen says, “which is hilarious.” The schedule gave him all day to sleep off his headlong tumbles into unconsciousness. “I would have to be high or drunk to work, to function. I would be jittery, have the shakes, or I’d be on edge,” he says. “I would have people come to the restaurant to deliver me drugs, and I’d go meet them outside. That’s how I would get through the night.”

Several mornings he awoke in his car, bloody from a forgotten fight, or maybe mugged. Some incidents stand out in his mind because there’s a police record. There was a DUI on Lake Shore Drive, two arrests for fighting, one for shoving a DC cop. Once he was picked up trying to steal dog food for Prince, his German pinscher. “I figured it was the least I could do,” Allen says, “because I definitely wasn’t taking care of him.”

All those scrapes gave him a vague awareness that he needed help, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to ask. The judge in his DUI case wondered if he had a sponsor, and Allen assumed he meant a hardware store or something, like for a softball team. Treatment was a foreign concept.

Nobody intervened, because he kept his distance enough to disguise his addiction. “Really just solitary confinement,” Allen says. He worked nights and kept up martial-arts training, leaving little time to stay in touch with friends following more traditional paths. As long as he maintained his work and workout routines, even the few close friends who knew he used drugs did not suspect the depth of his problem. “Here’s a guy doing martial arts five days a week, or seven days for all I know,” says Allen’s mentor and former Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Andy Ruttenberg, then just a casual acquaintance from the gym. “But at night he was living a different life.”

Allen pulled it off so well that he might have even fooled himself. Thinking back, he doesn’t believe he trained as much as Ruttenberg remembers. Then again, he can’t account for about a year of his life. His memories are like scattered puzzle pieces forming incomplete pictures.

Stories filtered back to Ruttenberg, sounding to his attuned ears like Allen was “destined for a crash-and-burn scenario,” but it did not happen that way. Allen simply wandered so far from friends and family that he felt lost and lonely enough to turn back. Don’t ask him why those feelings overcame the itch for drugs. When he tries to explain it, he relies on the verbal shrug, “for whatever reason.”

One morning—in his fragmented recollection it must have been May 2003—Allen’s girlfriend found him outside her Hyde Park apartment building, unconscious in his running car, bruised and reeking of vomit. She maneuvered him from the curb to bed, where Allen reentered the earth’s atmosphere hours later. Nothing unusual about that, but “for whatever reason,” he could not summon the energy for the pretense anymore. Mundane gestures, like putting on a clean shirt for work, seemed ridiculous. For the first time, he reached out. Allen called his brother, but all he could choke out when Eddie answered the phone was, “It’s Mark. I miss you.”

Susan Au Allen flew to Chicago to begin the process of getting help. A meeting with Ruttenberg helped Allen see the effects of his addiction. “He said these words: ‘I look at you, and it looks like your spirit is dying slowly,’” Allen says. “Those words kind of like blew me away.” Ruttenberg recalls a more blunt assessment: “I said, ‘If you don’t get treatment, you’re going to be dead.’ Forget his spirit. The bottom line is, he was dying.”

The next day, June 17, 2003, Allen left for a rehab center in Tucson, Arizona, with naive visions of a brief break from drugs and lessons on how to control his use. Control, not stop. “I wanted to partake in it recreationally or whatever. I heard you could do that,” he says. “I didn’t know when I got to rehab it was going to be an all-or-nothing thing.”

Despite the shock, Allen settled into treatment without much physical or emotional withdrawal. There was a basketball court outside. Alone with his jump shot for the first time since his college career ended two years earlier, he basked in the sound of swish after hypnotic swish.

Waichulis heard from Allen’s mother that he became such a resource to the treatment center staff, “it was like having another counselor. That’s the guy I knew.” It became apparent that his first trip to rehab would be successful, and the guy Waichulis knew returned to Chicago five weeks later ready to reconnect with his friends. Allen needed only a fraction of that time to realize how much better he felt about himself without drugs. “Within a few days,” he says, “I was happy that I was free of all the crap.”

Freedom is a relative term in recovery, a state of mind and body that requires constant attention. Allen’s routine includes frequent Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Cravings creep up at unpredictable times, and AA provides the support system to resist. More difficult is addressing the emotional issues he once used drugs to ignore. “When Mark and I talk, we don’t really talk about how hard it is to stay sober,” Ruttenberg says. “We talk about how hard it is to function in life with feelings.”

It’s still easier for Allen to find a physical outlet for his feelings. His most emotional act was donating a kidney to his mother in 2006, possible only because of his body’s remarkable resilience to his drug use. Like his mother’s immediate response to Allen’s plea for help, he did not hesitate when she was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis—“that’s just medical jargon,” he says, “for, ‘your kidney is dying.’” Neither considers those responses to each other’s life-threatening situations particularly praiseworthy. “In Chinese there’s a saying: You test your friendship in crisis,” Susan Au Allen says. “You test your friendship when you’re down and out.” By that standard, Allen’s family bonds are strong. Maintaining those bonds in happier times is the real challenge.

A reluctance to reveal much emotion complicates his relationships. “He and I have a communication issue still,” his mother says. “More often than not we hang up unhappy.” Allen blames that friction on his introverted tendencies, but “I work on being attached and connected to the close relationships that I have,” he says. “The more connected I am, the happier I am, and the less I want to go back to my old habits.”

His strongest connection is with his old teammate Waichulis. They got past the simmering basketball rivalry their first year at Chicago when Waichulis invited Allen to join some players for pizza. Today they share the condo that doubles as Allen’s office.

In their living room a large, flat test screen dominates the wall behind Allen’s desk. He sells—and sometimes creates—the digital ads that flash on similar screens he’s installed at a car wash, an oil-change shop, and a gym. This solo operation started last August with funding from a Las Vegas investor Allen met through his previous job with a DVD rental-kiosk company. The economy hasn’t helped business, but his persistence overcomes the lure of the couch or the distraction of Prince licking his face. Realtors and a liquor store are among his advertising clients.

But before sales calls and meetings, he has to finish his workout at the Chicago Boxing Club. It continues with two three-round sparring sessions, the second against a younger, faster opponent, straining Allen’s fatigued mind and body. Afterward he slumps over the ropes to catch his breath, but only for a few seconds before slugging a heavy bag that hangs from the ceiling. Next he jumps rope, a feat of coordination and endurance on rubbery legs, then concludes his session the way he began: shadow boxing.

Back in the ring by himself, Allen throws jab-cross combinations and flurries of uppercuts. He peeks at the mirror on the far wall to study his form. The choreography is familiar, but the repetition reinforces the importance of balancing aggressiveness and vulnerability, the lesson that sustains Allen in all his fights.

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